Early Modern Post

The Permissive Archive – a review

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In November 2012, the graduate students of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters put on a one-day conference to mark CELL’s ten year anniversary. ‘The Permissive Archive’ was the result of a year of planning, 24 speakers in four parallel panels, one keynote lecture by Lisa Jardine, and the most wonderful set of organisers, colleagues and delegates you could hope for.

This post was going to say a little bit about what the conference was about, and a little about what I learned from the process, but this ended up being, well, on the long side. So, here’s a bit about the intellectual content of the day, and IOU one blog post on the practicalities!

What is a Permissive Archive, anyway?

We were intentionally open-minded about what the enigmatic ‘permissive archive’ might mean. Bar limiting the period focus of the conference from 1500-1800, we left it to our speakers and delegates to explore what they thought the archive permitted, forbade, complicated and provoked. How does information reach us, what is preserved and what is lost, and how does this affect the questions we ask and the answers we find? We wanted to take a new look at the ‘archival turn’, at the intersection between archivists, historians and literary scholars, and at the history – and future – of archives. Ambitious? Probably. But what was covered in an expansive and open way on the day can hopefully slim down into something more directed in any future publication (watch this space on that one).

The papers

The audience wait expectantly for the first panel.

The audience wait expectantly for the first panel.

Being one of the organisers, I wasn’t able to attend all the panels, but the papers I did see impressed the socks off me. I was also presenting at the conference, alongside two fascinating papers that together made up the first panel, on the ‘original context’ of the early modern archive.

In brief, my paper was on the ‘afterlife’ of letters – that is, in the diplomatic arena particularly, what happens to letters after their initial sending and reception, and how do they become the sources of ‘History’ with a capital ‘H’? Do aspiring diplomats write with this use in mind? Who kept and preserved daily diplomatic letters, and why? I argued that such letters could become the substance of government, used not just as an epistle to convey information, but in their immediate ‘afterlife’ preserved and re-formatted to become political resources in their own right.

Christopher Burlinson discusses early modern filing.

Christopher Burlinson discusses early modern filing.

This fit well with my co-panellist Christopher Burlinson’s paper on early modern filing, examined alongside Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. One really interesting point (among many made) was that filing and archiving can be ways of allowing one to forget as well as allowing one to remember – a really fascinating tension that I need to think more about. Our third member was Markus Friedrich, who explored the difficulties and possibilities of accessing archives in early modern Europe. We heard stories of the wining, dining and bribing of individuals in order that scholars could get their hands on materials, suggesting that the archive’s power dynamics lay less with princely display and politics, and more with local and social barriers to be navigated.

Parallel to my panel was a group of speakers on the future rather than the past of the archive – the ubiquitous but potentially ill-defined ‘digital humanities’. Unsurprisingly for a panel of tech savvy folk, you can find much of their material online already. Take a look at Samuli Kaislaniemi’s paper here, and his postscript that cheered in its conclusion that the audience were already reasonably au fait with the risks and complexities of the digital medium. Perhaps we’re now getting used to both the advantageous access and problematic filtering and misrepresentations of digital sources. If you weren’t there, you can find notes and slides from Paige Morgan’s talk on her Visible Prices project here.

The issue of how old and new methods of access affect our work was reprised in Helen Graham-Matheson’s paper on the under-studied counselloresse Elizabeth Parr[1]. Where the nineteenth century Calendars of State Papers excised this influential woman almost completely from history, the State Papers Online’s mass digitisation of original documents has allowed Helen to recover her story.

Amanda Vickery chairs the panel on 'What the Victorians did to us'.

Amanda Vickery chairs the panel on ‘What the Victorians did to us’.

This aptly named panel, ‘What the Victorians did to us’, was also made up of Eleanor Collins’ brilliant paper on the mediated nature of the Caroline Revels accounts, and Pete Mitchell’s inimitable presentation on the India Office records, the remaking of Colonial history and a particularly well illustrated kind of Victorian antiquarian pride.

Eleanor’s discussion of lost and manipulated originals tapped into something that threaded through the whole day – that we do not need to treat the problematic archive with pessimism or with reverence, but with a careful use that maps and explores what’s both there and not there.

This was seen in panel 5, which explored the relationship of the life of the individual to the life of ‘their’ archive. Noah Moxham took us through the biography of Robert Hooke and the Royal Society, challenging us to think about the overlap between the individual and the institution, and asking what leads to the preservation of a collection. Kelsey Jackson Williams, on John Aubrey, reminded us how donating a collection is a projection of the self, but one that is always fragmentary and incomplete.

Sarah Broadhurst shows us Isaac Rand's name inked onto the book edge.

Sarah Broadhurst shows us Isaac Rand’s name inked onto the book edge.

Towards the end of the day, this idea was revisited in a very physical form by Sarah Broadhurst’s deeply provenance-focused survey of the books in the Chelsea Physic Garden. Here we had the archivist’s approach, materially tracing the inscriptions of names down the sides of bookcases and books, as well as touching on networks of knowledge and friendship amongst such luminaries as Hans Sloane and John Ray. I only wish that I had some more images to put up here, both from this paper, and especially from Arlene Leis’ paper on a collection of eighteenth century visiting cards and from Anna Marie Roos’ wealth of Lister ephemera from earlier in the day.

The last paper was delivered by Ian Cooper, and discussed the finding of the Seymour of Berry Pomeroy manuscripts which reveal the role of Plymouth during the Armada years; a paper by Ian on a similar theme, published by James Daybell and Andrew Gordon in a special edition of the open source journal Lives and Letters can be found here.

The day was rounded off in excellent style by a stimulating lecture by Professor Lisa Jardine, which doubled as the keynote lecture and the launch of the impressive Annotated Books Online project. If you didn’t manage to catch her then, I strongly recommend going to her inaugural lecture at UCL on 15th January next year, titled ‘Temptation in the Archives’.

There were, of course, more excellent papers that I’ve not room to mention – otherwise this would be an article rather than a blog post. This is no reflection on the papers themselves, and if you were there I’d love it if you wanted to share your thoughts in the comments section below – especially on the half of the day that I didn’t see.

Once more, a massive thank you to my colleagues for organising, the chairs for presiding expertly over the panels, and all the speakers for their hard work. In my humble opinion, you’re all awesome.

The Permissive Archive organisers were: James Everest, Helen Graham-Matheson, Daisy Hildyard, Nydia Pineda, Kirsty Rolfe, Will Tosh, Elizabeth Williamson, Clare Whitehead.


[1] The term ‘counselloresse’ was found by Helen in a letter describing these kinds of powerful women around Elizabeth I’s privy chamber. I know Helen would love to hear from you if you’ve encountered its use elsewhere.

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One thought on “The Permissive Archive – a review

  1. Pingback: Archives, practices and paper: thoughts from Munich | Early Modern Post

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